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Alan M. Kriegsman, Pulitzer-winning dance critic for The Post, dies at 84

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Alan M. Kriegsman, a critic for The Washington Post whose fervid prose style earned the first Pulitzer Prize for dance coverage and who chronicled an era of surging popular enthusiasm for dance in forms ranging from classical ballet to break dancing, died Aug. 31 of heart ailments at his home in Chevy Chase. He was 84.

The death was confirmed by Suzanne Carbonneau, a dance critic and historian.

In an interview, Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Soviet-born dancer and former artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre, called Mr. Kriegsman “one of the best writers” on dance. He said that Mr. Kriegsman, who was known as Mike, was an accomplished pianist whose educational background in music “brought an intelligent approach to writing about music in choreography.”

Soft-spoken and erudite, Mr. Kriegsman could become animated by detailed conversations about the use of the music of Bach and other composers in a dance performance. “Mike was very much a propagandist of art, and he was passionate about art education,” Baryshnikov said. “He was a classy bohemian.”

Arts criticism became a Pulitzer category in 1970, and journalists had won for music, architecture, television and film before Mr. Kriegsman was recognized in 1976. He was the first Washington-based critic and the first in The Post’s Style section to earn the highest honor in journalism. In 2010, Sarah Kaufman, The Post’s present dance reviewer, became only the second recipient of a Pulitzer for dance criticism.

Mr. Kriegsman’s career at The Post, from 1966 to 1996, coincided with an unprecedented cultural flowering spurred by federal arts funding and magnetic Soviet defectors such as Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev who excited audiences, Carbonneau said.

On the dance beat, Mr. Kriegsman attended major performances in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, but he also was egalitarian in his tastes. He covered Indian and Spanish folk dances and attended community performances by African drummers to give readers a broader sense of a vibrant dance culture.

A strong admirer of Russian companies such as the Bolshoi Ballet, Mr. Kriegsman wrote with wry delight of the cultural implications of the Soviet Union crumbling in the early 1990s.

“In the dance world, the Soviet Union rode high and mighty over cultural competitors until the very hour of its collapse,” he wrote. “Now the main quest of the major Russian and former Soviet troupes is who can most quickly acquire the works of formerly despised Western masters such as Balanchine, Robbins and Tudor.”

Mr. Kriegsman was not so naive to think that dance would ever trump movies or television in terms of mass consumption. But he became almost giddy when a major broadcasting network, CBS, devoted two hours of prime-time coverage — “bucking action and private eye serials, a mystery movie and Olympic sports on competing network channels” — to air a Bolshoi Opera production of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1976. And it was with barely disguised enthusiasm that he reported in 1975 on the 35th anniversary gala of the American Ballet Theatre in New York — an event that he described as a near-apocalyptic scene of ticket scalping, celebrity gawking and flashbulb popping.

“Ballet!” Mr. Kriegsman wrote. “The Cinderella of the arts, always in rags while the others swathed themselves in riches, the ‘esoteric’ plaything of a handful of esthetes and fanatics.”

“Now ballet is so bloody ‘in,’ people will kill for a ticket,” he added. “ ‘Any extra seats?’ a man shouted to passersby, waving a sheaf of money high in the air. ‘Yeah,’ a woman snarled indignantly, ‘if ya got 250 bucks.’ ”

Alan Mortimer Kriegsman was born Feb. 28, 1928, in Brooklyn. After briefly studying physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he served in the Army during the post-World War II occupation of Japan.

He traced his interest in dance to a lecture taught by the musicologist Curt Sachs at Columbia University, where Mr. Kriegsman received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and master’s degree in music in 1953. He attended the University of Vienna in 1956 and 1957 on a Fulbright scholarship.

Mr. Kriegsman pursued a doctorate in musicology at Columbia before entering journalism full time in 1960 as the music and drama critic of the San Diego Union. After a stint as assistant to the president of the Juilliard school in New York, he joined The Post in 1966 as music critic and covered a variety of the lively arts before being named dance critic in 1974.

In 1957, he married Sali Ann Ribakove, an author and administrator who became dance director at the National Endowment for the Arts. Besides his wife, survivors include a brother.

Carbonneau said Mr. Kriegsman was not didactic in his writing, nor did he enter a performance with preconceived ideas about how an artist should interpret a work. “Mike was always willing to turn himself over imaginatively to whatever a work was and to see what this particular work had to say to us,” she said.

Shortly before retiring, Mr. Kriegsman wrote: “Among the various art forms, dance holds a special and particular place by virtue of its intimate connection with the human body, and with the unique nobility, resilience and profundity it thereby acquires. No matter what hindrances the future may pose, so long as there are men and women able to move, dance will continue to be a powerful avenue of human expression.”

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